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Interview with Steve Harwell of Smash mouth By Gabriella

November 1997

After scoring a couple of chart-topping tunes, the members of Smash mouth, who hail from San Jose, California, have found themselves traversing the planet. NY Rock freelancer Gabriella recently met up with lead singer Steve Harwell in Europe, following a recording session with MTV. Steve was tired, a tad hung-over, but in a great mood, clearly ready to conquer the continent with Smash mouth’s hi-octane music: a blend of garage punk, rock, and ska, with songs that contain strong melodies and clever lyrics.


NY Rock:

Steve, how did Smash mouth form?

Harwell:

It all started with Kevin [Coleman]. We’re old childhood friends. We started to jam together. Well, you could call it “making noise.” Then we were introduced to Greg [Camp]. We wanted him to be part of the whole thing but at first he wasn’t really delighted about it. We just kept showing up and banging on his window until he let us in. We tortured him until he helped us to finish the songs. After a while he realized how much fun it was. Later on we started playing live with a friend of Greg’s, Paul [De Lisle], who joined forces with us and then Smash mouth was complete.

NY Rock:

How did such a variety in your music come about?

Harwell:
Smash mouth

When we formed the band in 1994, we didn’t have one style of music in mind. We wanted to write songs that feel good to us and make others feel good. The question of a particular style never once crossed our minds. Well maybe it did, but more in the way that we didn’t want to be labeled as a punk band, a ska band, a surf band, a rock band, a pop band, or a whatever band. We just wanted to be us, Smash mouth, and leave it to the people to interpret what we are.

We like it this way. It’s a pretty good way to avoid having journalists put us in their little drawers and label us with neat little buttons. We have too much variety to be labeled as one particular style and that suits us just fine!

NY Rock:

Isn’t it difficult to have four members with different tastes in one band?

Harwell:

We all have different musical preferences, but we like a lot of the same stuff. So, it’s not a problem at all. Our different tastes give our sound the variety it needs to stand out and we’re quite happy with that. I think our different musical backgrounds and preferences blend perfectly together.

NY Rock:

You took a big risk when you recorded your album Fush Yu Mang all on your own without even having a record contract.

Harwell:

I think it looked a great deal riskier than it really was. I got to know a lot of people from the radio and I knew that I could get the songs played and I knew that the songs would be good. We just thought that if no major label would be interested we would release it ourselves, but once we were finished with the recording, labels almost jumped on us.

NY Rock:

And you signed with Interscope...

Harwell:
Smash mouth
Smash mouth

We ended up with a contract for two albums with Interscope and that suits me fine. I take care of most of the business stuff for the band and I don’t really like the feeling of being tied up too much. Two albums are just fine.

NY Rock:

How did you hook up with producer Eric Valentine [Third Eye Blind, Steve Vai]?

Harwell:

We already had a couple of demos recorded in Greg’s bedroom -- his neighbors weren’t delighted about it and he got evicted from his apartment -- but Eric Valentine heard some of our stuff and he really liked it. He helped us to produce a two-song demo and we took it to our local radio station in San Jose, KOME. One of the DJs fell in love with “Nervous in the Alley” and kept playing it. People kept calling in and asked where they could find the song, but it wasn’t available since we only had the demo. Another reason why we were pretty sure that an album would sell.

NY Rock:
Smash mouth

Is it true that you recorded and remixed Fush Yu Mang in barely four weeks?

Harwell:
Smash mouth

Since we weren’t exactly swimming in money we had to hurry up a bit. So when we went into the studio in Redwood City, we knew that we couldn’t waste any time and we didn’t. The recording and mixing of Fush Yu Mang took only a month and that’s not a lot for a whole album. We work pretty quick if we have to.

NY Rock:

But all of a sudden you were playing on one bill with No Doubt and Beck...

Harwell:
Smash mouth

KOME asked us to play at their summer radio show at the Shoreline Amphitheater. We only had played small clubs so far and all of a sudden we were playing in front of a couple of thousand people, alongside bands like No Doubt, Beck and 311. It was great but I remember how nervous we were. There’s a big difference between a small club and a gig like that.

NY Rock:

Taking care of the business stuff makes you pretty much the boss of the band, doesn’t it?

Harwell:

I’m not the boss and I don’t want to be the boss in that respect, but if you got four different people with four different ideas you are not going anywhere, that’s anarchy. In a band you need someone who says, “Guys we’re going to make a decision,” and someone who keeps the overview and decides what is best for the band. It’s something that suits me. I like keeping an eye on the business side of things and I like keeping the sharks at bay. (I guess I’m not telling you anything new if I say that the music business is full of sharks... and I hate sharks.) The others know that I keep an eye on that stuff and it’s fine with them.

NY Rock:

Your bassist Greg writes most of the songs but is not credited as the songwriter on the album. Why is that?

Harwell:
Smash mouth

Greg brings in a skeleton of a song and we all work on it, play around with it and make it a song. Greg writes most of the lyrics but that’s OK. It’s what he’s good at. The rest of us also contribute a lot to the songs. That’s why we have “all songs written and published by Smash mouth” on the sleeve. Smash mouth is the four of us, Greg, Paul, Kevin and me. We’re a band and not rivals. It doesn’t really matter how a song starts or who wrote a song. In the end, a song is something to which we all contributed and that’s why we don’t have individual credits. The songs are a product of Smash mouth as a band.

NY Rock:

On a final note, how do you like Europe?

Harwell:

It’s different but it’s great here. I really like it, except your radio stations. Excuse me but they really suck. Honestly, what I’ve heard on the radio in Europe so far is mind numbing. That’s why I think the only way to get known in Europe is over the video clips and by playing live. All that formatted radio, you guys really need a couple of college radio stations that rock.


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